I Swear I Don't Work For Goodreads

            It makes me feel like a product of my generation but having an online presence as an author is paramount. Even if you’re running around doing book signings people want to be able to Google you before you get there. The biggest problem with indie books (an all-encompassing term for self-published books and books from small presses) is that they never reach the hands of people who would read them because those people don’t know they exist.

            Now there is an easy way to combat this. You don’t have to be super computer savvy or a tech guru. (Trust me, it’s taken me years of hard work to get this far.) Goodreads. I highly encourage you to go look into creating an author account on Goodreads dot com. When you sign up you will be able to set your own author page up with a photo of you, a small bio, a list of your published works, and more! If you get really brave you can post blog updates, short stories, and list your favorite books to share with your fan base. Really, a page like that gives the librarians who are making posters for your upcoming book signing enough information to make an informative flyer. *COUGH*

            If you’re a self-published author or a small press owner you definitely want to make sure the information on all of your books is on Goodreads. People like me like to brag about how smart we are and how much we read (I’m kidding). There is a feature on the site that allows Goodreads users to update their reading progress as they go. I often update my Twitter following with every page turn so the books I love can gain more visibility. At the very least, if you’re a published author you need to go make sure your book’s information is true and correct, which you can do as soon as you finish creating your author profile.

            No matter what you do in this day and age, being visible on the World Wide Web as an entertainer is important. Goodreads is a great way to get your feet wet if you’re iffy on the whole computer thing. I swear, I don’t work for Goodreads! It’s just helped my career, and helped me help other authors. That is why I recommend it so highly.

 

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Write From Your Own Voice

            I’m all for giving the “go sit on a tack” to “write what you know”. You think I know what it’s like to be royalty in a monarchial society? What it’s like to use a sword on another human being? My work in progress involves a sassy, pregnant, woman, with shorn hair, who’s in charge of leading a nomadic tribe, and their prisoners, through a wide expanse of forest. I happen to be sassy but that’s about the only thing this main character (MC) and I have in common.

            I also enjoy reading Amy Tan’s work. It occurred to me the other evening while reading The Joy Luck Club that I will never be able to pattern my work after hers. I think all fresh creators have a master they wish they could be like. But I will never be able to write what it’s like to be part of a Chinese-American family living in San Francisco. If you haven’t read Amy Tan’s auto-biography I highly recommend it. She and I have had completely different life experiences and that’s not something to despair over. It’s something to celebrate. She can’t write like me, either.

            I don’t mean to send you mixed signals, but what I’m trying to say is that not every novel you write has to be a thinly veiled portrayal of your own life, nor does it have to be something completely disaligned from your perception of reality. I often find that the books written to please crowds of people and [hopefully] top best seller’s lists are dry things that feel like they were pasted together with the whims of an entire nation. I don’t like them. As a reader, I want to hear your voice shine through your work. I don’t need to know how good you are at using a thesaurus. I find the most well written books read like having a conversation with someone. Write like you talk! Be yourself when you write.

            That being said, although I write fantasy I can confirm I’m not delusional enough to believe I live in a fantasy world. (Ask me about the lengths my fantasy writer friends and I go through to make sure we’re not mocking things like physics.) No matter how fantastical I get there’s always one thing at the heart of every story that makes it mine. My voice.

            Don’t feel obligated to write what you know. Do write like you. Write from your own voice. Do not write like the writer you admire.

 

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Making the Most of Research

            Writing a book often goes hand-in-hand with researching the subjects you’re writing about. If the character is a mechanic, the author needs to know a decent amount about cars and what a mechanic does to fix them. No writing, except for maybe an autobiography, is without its simultaneous research. (Even stories that seem simple.)

 

                Research can seem daunting and terrifying, mostly because there’s so much that someone needs to know.  If a character needs to know everything about a subject, it seems like the author needs to know the same amount. But if your story is about a grouchy mechanic putting together an old ’67 Chevy from his childhood, you as the author probably don’t need to know anything about BMWs.

 

                There are lots of different types of resources, especially on something that involves life experience. There are often nonfiction books explaining the mechanics of what you’re researching (for an example, how an autoimmune disease affects the body), as well as memoirs describing people’s personal experience. If you can’t find a memoir, try reaching out online for people who have similar life experiences to the one you’re planning on writing about.

 

                With so many resources and so much knowledge available in today’s modern, technological age, it can be hard to decide what your characters need to know. If they are an expert hacker, do they need to know everything about computers, or just the software? If you know too much about a subject, the story can be hard to get through as a reader, but knowing not enough can make it inaccurate and feel unrealistic. Therefore, it becomes a challenge to find just the right balance of research. You can’t have too wide of a field.

 

                “Everything” is too much to learn, but “just this one part” is too specific and will you’re your character seem too much like a fictional creation. Narrowing down your research can be hard, so here’s some tips:

 

                Decide what your character needs to know. If your character has cancer, they need to have a patient’s understanding of their cancer, not a doctor’s knowledge of every kind of cancer in existence. If your character is a Shakespeare nut, they probably don’t need to know everything about every playwright of Shakespeare’s time. Let your research only involve what the character needs to know – anything else will be overwhelming.

 

                Learn about what you’re writing about. Maybe your character is a dancer, but you don’t know anything about the dance world or even how a dance class works. Talk to someone who does, find books about dancing, and ask dance students. Real-life research can sometimes be better than reading books about something. Even if your character doesn’t have explicit information about the world they exist in, the world still needs to feel accurate and real.

 

                Know just a little bit extra. Even if your main character doesn’t need to know everything about their situation or world, it’s never bad to know a little bit extra. There may be a character, such as a doctor, with a higher level of information, or you may find in editing that you want to add a little extra detail. It’s never bad to know extra, but researching large amounts makes it harder for you to remember what you know.

 

                As long as you know what you need to know to write your next best-seller, you can research it. Online databases, libraries, and people with life experiences are all great resources for you to learn about the thing that will make your story just a touch more realistic. If you follow the simple steps above and find good resources to match them, you might just find that researching your stories can be fun!

 

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The Importance of Finding the Right Editor

          I recently had a friend of mine ask me to edit his manuscript. Although I know him well enough I’m not sure what genre he likes to write. Being both a librarian and an author I do like to read. But, like every other human being I have types of books I like and others that just aren’t for me. As an author I do try to branch out and read things outside of my comfort zone. (Westerns, romance novels, mainstream fiction.) But I’d rather dislike something that’s about to be adapted into a movie than be the first person to read a good but rough manuscript and say it was “Eh.”

            Editors are like you and I. They have specific genres they like to read and they do a better job at editing books they’re geared to like than to tell you to completely change your manuscript to better suit their needs. It would be like me saying “Yeah, the plot’s good but all the kissing junk is really distracting from the main flow of the book.”
            “Helen. It’s a romance novel.”

            I once had a friend write a children’s book about a unicorn and turn it into her editor. Chiefly this author friend wrote westerns, and chiefly her editor who had worked with her for many years read westerns. “I don’t like it.” The editor declared.

            “Well why?”
            “I just don’t!”
            “But why?!”
            “…I just don’t like unicorns, okay!”

            The editor, who had been reading and enjoying this authors western novels for years upon years simply didn’t like children’s books, especially children’s books about unicorns, and as a result, my author friend never pushed to have her children’s book published. It’s not the end of the world, but if my author friend were to find another editor who liked children’s books, particularly ones about unicorns, that editor might have said something like “This story has good bones but we need a different illustrator.” Or “The language is too lofty. Please remember most of your audience is under five.” Or “What if instead of Sparkle Mountain we call it Sprinkle Mountain? That way the chocolate river makes sense. Because the mountains in this story are actually made of ice cream, right?”

            An editor can make or break a book. They’re the first line of defense from not only type-os but also obscure blunders like “Yeah, that law in Canada changed back in 2012 so here’s an updated statute of limitations. I only spent an hour trying to find that. No biggie.” Or worse. They keep you from breaking your own laws like “You said your vampires couldn’t go out in the sunlight. Yet Damaris gets overly excited when he meets Michelle’s dog and he runs outside without his umbrella. Yet, he comes back to the porch unscathed… Hurt him.” Editors are hugely important. But not every editor is going to like your book just like not every reader is going to like your book once it hits the market. You have to find one that’s going to see your manuscript for the diamond in the rough that it is and then help you polish it until it sparkles.

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NaNoWriMo Is Ending but Your Writing Doesn’t Have to

            No really. You don’t have to only write during National Novel Writing Month. All of your followers on social media are invested in the story you’re trying to tell! Every person you’ve been excitedly telling about your book wants to see you finish your book! So finish it!

            As much as I hate to admit it I thrive off of attention. I just came to terms with that this November. Actually tracking my daily word count has really helped me write more. When I can I try to beat my record! It’s been a lot of fun! And it’s even more fun for the people who are really invested in War and Chess to follow along as write the third in the series. (Book two is currently being edited at the publishing house.) Book three has been my NaNoWriMo project for two, maybe three years now. The working title is Emerald, First Queen of Gishlan but that title could very well change! This is by far the longest book I have ever written in my life and someday soon I’d like to see it finished!

            Because I was deep in despair over December 1st coming way too early, and all third party accountability ending I checked up on NaNoWriMo’s website and… You can make little word goals for yourself all year long! Here is the link to that. Don’t forget to sign in! I have set the impossible goal of 1,000 words per day (30,000 words spanning from December 1st through December 31st) and I am excited to fail miserably trying my best!

            Your friends want you to finish your book. Your readers want you to finish your book. [And if you’re like me] your Instagram followers want you to finish your book! So finish it! And if you have, edit it! The world wants your book! And I find, since writing is just show business for shy people, the more people you can get invested in your work the more you yourself will want to write! You don’t have to quit writing just because NaNoWriMo is over!

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Perfect Characters are Boring Characters

            Make them suffer. Embarrass them, let them trip in front of their crush, stutter while public speaking, fall and scrape their knees, say the wrong thing to their friend who’s grieving a loss. Make your main character suffer.

            Why? Because perfect characters are boring characters. Have you ever read a book where the main character knows exactly what to say, exactly what to do, and exactly when to do it? Even a supporting character! They’re boring!

            I spoke with an artist once. He told me people like to connect with art so he liked to paint his surroundings. People want to connect with books too. That’s why the entertainment industry is all abuzz with talk of representation in the media. It’s not only demographic matters people connect to. They want to find people going through the same struggles as them too. Take Smile for example! It’s a graphic novel of a young girl between the ages of 11 and 13 who knocks out her front teeth, has to have massive amounts of oral surgery, starts middle school, gets bullied, finds her first crush, fights with her siblings. Really, normal stuff. Kids about in middle school and about to start middle school really connect with that particular book in our library’s collection. And a perfect main character wouldn’t have her little sister running circles around her singing “All’s I want for Christmas is my two front teeth!”

            What drives a plot line is conflict. You need your beloved fictional friends to experience friction to keep them driven and keep them moving. There’s no such thing as perfect people. Imperfect people don’t want to read about perfect characters. Make them human (even if they’re technically elves, or dogs, or werewolves, or what have you!) and make them make mistakes.

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How to Approach Libraries for a Book Signing

            I asked one of my Facebook writer groups if they had suggestions for topics on our writing advice blog. One of them asked “How does one approach a library for a book signing?” I thought it was a perfect topic! So first thing’s first, I went to my boss, Joan Brinkley, the director of Goshen County Library and we put our heads together to bring you this article.

            That’s the first thing you as an author want to do. Figure out the name of the director of the library you’re going to query. The director of a library is the head librarian. You’ll sound a lot savvier if you use their name and job title rather than calling the library and asking “May I speak to the head librarian?”

            Joan prefers phone calls (I prefer emails but no one cares because I’m not the director). When you call a library, after you know the name and job title of the person you want to talk to, the next thing you need to be ready with is your elevator pitch. All bosses are busy. You need to be able to make someone want to read your book in the time it takes to ride in an elevator with them. If they want more information, great! Just keep it concise. Joan admitted one of the most annoying things an author can do is keep her on the phone for too long. We’re all very excited you got your book published! Truly! But keeping the director on the line for an hour and a half will not buy you brownie points.

            Just after I tell you to simmer down here’s another thing Joan stressed: BE CONFIDENT. To quote Joan herself “You’ve already spent years putting it together. Since it’s published it’s already gone through a lot of editing and criticism. Be excited about your book so we can be excited too.”

            If you’re like me and you hate phone calls with all that is within your soul emails are also acceptable. Just make sure that your email has a hyperlink to your website, your contact information, a summary about your book, and any other information you want us to know about you or your book. One of the most annoying ways to contact a library is just messaging their social media with a link to your book on Amazon and nothing else. Don’t do that but with an email! But do an email. You don’t want to just message the Facebook page (or whatever platform you’re on) because you never know who’s actually going to get it. It’s probably not going to be the director. (In our establishment it comes to me, the web manager.) But again: Make sure your email has a hyperlink to your website, your contact information, a summary about your book, and any other information you want us to know about you or your book.  

            Joan and I agree it’s best to do book tours. You schedule two or three book signings in a row in towns near each other. For instance, you have one in Scottsbluff, then you come here, then Niobrara County Library. Sometimes, no matter what you do people just won’t come out. It’s okay. That’s why it’s nice to have the next one ready to go so you can just have better luck in the next town.

            Once you’ve got the book signing the next thing is to prepare a presentation. At the very least a spiel! I’ve had— I’m not saying it to sound cool, I’ve literally lost track— over 10 book signings. Every library and every event is different. Some want you to do an entire presentation, some want you to sit in the corner and look pretty, and some want to involve you in some bigger project. (In Rapid City the local teens and I got to play with typewriters for NaNoWriMo!) I carried around a folding poster board for a year. There were a lot of places where bringing it out just wasn’t useful or helpful. So from that I learned, always have a backup plan! You can always be cooler than me too and have a power point presentation. Just be prepared to carry a laptop and a projector, and know how to use it. The only thing with tech is that it glitches. So, again. Have that backup plan.

            All in all, if you never ask the answer is always “no”. Be polite, and personable, make us love your book as much as you love it, and have a plan.

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The Recipe for a Successful Book Signing

            Take 12 ounces of published book
            100-300 pounds of enthusiastic author
            Add a venue
            and some curious bookworms

            Yield one book signing

            If only it were that simple! At the heart of it it is but from being on both sides of a book signing— the venue host and the author, it’s also not. Last month Joan and I discussed how authors should approach libraries to ask about having a book signing. We came up with so much helpful information I felt the need to split it into two articles. Once you’ve landed the book signing, and hopefully several in a row from several different libraries so you can do a book tour, then comes the hard part. The execution!

            You’ve got your presentation planned, right? No? Fret not. It’s not as terrible as it sounds. Public speaking frightens everyone. The trick is to be confident but not conceded, and humble but not shy. One of my favorite quotes is “Writing is show business for the shy.” From Lee Child. That’s why I treat book signings like concert nights. (I also sing and play the trumpet. I don’t make time for either now.) For any performance you dress up, show up early, and have a well-rehearsed plan for what you’re going to do once you have a room full of people’s eyes on you. I even do my preshow rituals in my car. Think of going through your presentation like putting on a show. Not public speaking. (Public speaking burns!)

            For the content of a presentation: Think of some questions your friends ask about writing when they take you out to lunch. Write those down, then answer them confidently in a projected tone that the entire room can hear. Honestly, it helps to pretend you are either friends with or becoming friends with the audience. When CJ Box was here the crowd spoke to him like they all knew him, and he spoke back in the same manner. They were a crowd of people who had been following his work for years, who had been hearing his voice in their minds for years. They did know him well because it was like they had been one sided pen pals with him for years. And he knew them because they had been the ones breathing life into his career. The audience is either your friends or people who want to be your new friends. Tell them about what inspired you to write the thing, what kept you going, which publisher did you use and why, what drives the plot. All of it! They’re all very curious book worms who are very excited to see you.

            One of the things that phased me the most for my first book signing(s) was “Omigosh, what am I going to wear?” What does “dress nice” and “business casual” even mean? At the time I published my first book I was a dewy eyed 20 year old with crazy hair. I had no idea. So a lot like I did for job interviews, I had a book signing shirt. It was white and I paired it with black slacks. A lot like I did for concert nights as a kid. Having one thing I’d wear for book signings made it easier because it was one less thing to think about during the event but the downside was that, unlike job interviews, pictures of you show up on social media. Everyone knows you’re wearing the same shirt. No one’s called me out on it so I haven’t ever changed my evil ways. Really, wear whatever it is you’d wear if you worked in an office (I didn’t at the time so that was unexplored territory). Either way, the goal with your look is to look like you want to be there and meant to be there.

            Another tip: Buy a cash box and keep $50 of $1’s and $5’s. It helps to have someone run the cash box so you can schmooze. It works even better if the person running it isn’t your identical twin. That way people who saw your picture before the event won’t ask your cash-man questions about writing books.

            Don’t do exactly what I do before every event we host at the library. Don’t get stressed up! Go with the mindset that you’re there to have a good time. That’s what the audience wants to have too. They left the comfort of their homes to be entertained, meet this cool person who wrote a book, and have a good time. Go make some new friends!

            All you need to remember is have a plan, have another plan, be a showman, the audience wants to be your friends if they’re not already, show up early, dress nicely, watch the cash box, and act like you want to be there.

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Picking a Title Clickbait Style

            It was actually my cover artist who suggested to me I might need to reconsider my titles to catch new reader’s attention. “Think like clickbait!”

            “What do you mean? ‘Will this random teenage girl save her country? The answer may shock you!’”

            He sent me a bunch of laughing emoji’s. Being in England we only communicate through text. “No! Not like that! You need to make people curious about what the book’s about! Kind of like clickbait.”

            So I pondered it for a while, while drinking coffee and cleaning my house, and then one of my WIPs (work in progress, plural) went from being named Emerald, First Queen of Gishlan to To Craft a Country. “Whoa.” Richard, the cover artist said “That’s much cooler.”

            “I blame you! Thank you!!!”

            That’s the trouble though. You have to tell people what the book is about with five words! Titles are not easy! Somedays I feel like I haven’t come up with a good title since War and Chess! However, once Richard told me to think of a book like clickbait it got me thinking “What kind of question do you want to invoke?”

            Just scrolling through my Facebook feed now I see titles like “Where Nebraska Stands in the Flood Fight” this makes me ask “Are my friends and relatives in Nebraska okay? What’s going on over there?” Now I want to stop writing this blog post and read it. And “Wife Reads out Husband’s Affair Texts Instead of Vows at Wedding”, “Boy Scouts Welcome First Girls Joining Local Troop with Brand New Uniforms”, “The Animal You See First Reveals the Essence of Your Soul.” All of these raise a question. Like a game of jeopardy. So I ask again, what kind of question do you want to invoke?

            I did a poll on Twitter. “Would you read a book called Emerald, First Queen of Gishlan?” I only got one vote and it was “No”. Frankly, no one knows who Emerald is, no one knows why they should care, a lot of people aren’t sure what a Gishlan is, even the people reading my work probably forget the name of the country because sometimes I forget the names of people I’ve known all my life. That’s just how humans are. However! With the title To Craft a Country everyone knows what a country is. We live in one. Craft means make. Is this book going to teach us how to make a country? That sounds neat. Oh, it’s fiction? Helen’s writing another warrior princess type deal? Neat. This reader is down.

            Someone told me (probably Richard) that “no matter how good a book is if it’s got a crappy title it’s not going to get picked up and read. Good cover art can only go so far” (and trust me, it goes far! If you’re self-publishing invest in good art!) an intriguing title will make people pick it up and read the back, add it to their To Be Read on Goodreads, Google it, write it down, actually bother to look in to buying your book. Which leads to getting read, which leads to building a fandom, which leads to your work gaining popularity, which leads to having the phrase “New York Times Best Selling Author” in front of your name. That way you don’t have to sell your soul to Satan for a mere 10 years of achieving your dreams. Work hard on your book’s first impressions!

            Your book’s title should invoke a question in your potential reader’s mind. You want the question to demand an answer! It’s your books first impression. Try to spark people’s curiosity! Tell us what it’s about in five words or less. And if you need inspiration you’re welcome to come shelf read for us here at your local library! ;)

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A Little Humility Goes a Long Way

            Picture this. You just spent three years building an imaginary world, your imaginary friends are doing well, and someone finally cares. You’re a published author! Finally. Now you’ve got people treating you like you’re smart, like you’re worth something. It’s hard not to let it go to your head. You have a place where the sun rises and sets at your command. However, getting high off your own greatness is an addiction in itself.

            One of the most brilliant things one of my friends said to me was “You can’t learn with a full cup.” And she was right! If you know everything there’s not going to be room for you to learn anything. And whether you’ve published 12 books or just 1 you’ve still got room to grow. My mentor, who used to grill me about my short stories so hard I’d break a sweat, after I published my first book I started showing her all the online resources she could use to promote her books! (And don’t worry about the grilling! It was for my good. That’s why by the time you read this blog post it’ll be only the second or third draft!) Never approach a situation like you know everything.

            Honest to goodness, Gene Gagliano, CJ Box, John Nesbitt, Zack Pullen, and Craig Johnson have been some of my favorite authors to work with in my career as a librarian. These fellows have all “made it”, but that is not what made them my favorites. Their kindness, their gentleness, their humility are what struck me. None of them swaggered into the library¾ or into my email’s inbox¾ acting like, well, the bestselling authors that they are! Even the ones who couldn’t make it to Goshen County Library were still polite enough to make a good impression with me.

            Publishing a book can make you feel like you’re sitting on top of the world. At least it did for me! But whether you’ve published, one, none, or 76 you’ve still got room to learn and to grow. This is coming from someone who’s writing blog posts on how to run your writing career. I still have a lot to learn. Being humble and polite will get you a lot farther than stuffy and full of yourself, and people will actually enjoy working with you.

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Do you have a burning question for Helen? Feel free to email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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